Watersports draw millions of participants and spectators across the world. One of the most popular sports in the category is wakeboarding — a relatively young sport that has quickly amassed a large global following.
Fourth-year College student Gordie Graham has been wakeboarding for years and recently competed in the 2020 East Coast Watersports Championship at Lake Gaston the weekend of Sept. 26. Graham, contending against four other individuals, won after recording the highest score in the advanced wakeboarding division.
Graham was first exposed to wakeboarding at an early age by his father. Growing up, Graham spent a lot of time on Lake Anna, located in Louisa and Spotsylvania counties in Virginia, where his family owned a lake house. The reservoir was where Graham got his first start in wakeboarding.
“I got into it really young,” Graham said. “So my dad really was the one who got into it and I was probably too young to say no at that time. He got me and my sister to try. I was like four or five. I think we tried waterskiing first and then went over to wakeboarding and really never went back.”
Graham’s father also introduced him to Adam Fields, two-time world wakeboard champion, who gave Graham wakeboarding lessons. In fact, Graham and Fields are still connected years later. For the last three or four years, and to this day, Graham works at AF Wake — a business founded and owned by Fields and located on Lake Gaston on the Virginia-North Carolina border.
AF Wake operates both a wakeboard school and shop and provides various watersports-related goods and services including apparel, gear and lessons. Graham is one of several instructors currently employed at AF Wake.
“I’ve met so many interesting characters working [at AF Wake] and teaching lessons,” Graham said. “We’re trying to get as many people into [the sport] in the safest way possible. And so we meet a lot of people on the lake with totally different backgrounds. It’s a very interesting thing to be a part of and a very fun thing to be a part of.”
On the competitive side, Graham participated in his first competition around the age of six. Since then, he’s competed in events up and down the East Coast and has even won some prize money. Graham’s most recent victory was just the latest entry in his competitive resume.
On Sept. 26 and 27, Graham competed in the 2020 East Coast Watersports Championship. The event — which Fields described as a “gateway to fun and access to watersports” — was hosted by AF Wake at Lake Gaston and featured wakeboarding, wakesurfing and paddle boarding.
“We’ve been involved in wakeboarding competition events for over 20 years now,” Fields said. “It’s our basic philosophy to grow watersports, and keep [events] like that going … We just love to do it from a sport growth perspective as well as for the community involvement and level of participation in our local community.”
Around 70 individuals competed in the event all weekend, while the advanced wakeboarding division consisted of five participants including Graham. Graham and his competitors had one pass up and down a marked course — or about six tricks — to impress the judges. Additionally, you can fall up to three times during the run but, with each fall, you lose both time and distance for tricks.
The competition’s judges evaluated each run on a number of criteria — composition, intensity and execution. Composition includes factors like variety and difficulty, intensity measures amplitude and execution assesses the riders’ ability to land a trick.
According to Fields, Graham “had a really sensational ride that day.” While Graham didn’t think his performance sealed the win, he did think he had a good chance and eventually learned the good news. He had scored 24 out of a possible 30 points, beating the next highest-scoring wakeboarder by a comfortable margin.
“It was just a really great day to be able to work [the event] and make it happen,” Graham said. “And then also competing, I was just really happy to be there and have the experience.”
Fields expressed his excitement not only for Graham, but for everyone who took part in the two-day event.
“That’s just great to see from all of our friends and students and contest participants, we just want everybody to do really well,” Fields said. “[Graham] really hit the nail on the head. That day, he had an awesome ride and came back into the finish, smiling and happy. That’s just great to see and it was a bonus that he won. He smoked his competition with a nice solid performance.”
For Graham and others, wakeboarding clearly isn’t just a sport, but a way to build a community of different types of people who can all come together and have a fun time. Whether it’s competing in events, giving lessons or just hanging out with friends, wakeboarding has already played — and will continue to play — a major role in Graham’s life.
“Wakeboarding itself is a whole bunch of fun, but it also just brings together a really cool group of people,” Graham said.